In Other News: Russian Moves Against Opposition, Venezuela to Receive Humanitarian Aid & More – April 30, 2021

April 30, 2021

Russian authorities have suspended the activities of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s political organization the Anti-Corruption Foundation and is expected to label it extremist. This would put the organization in the same legal category as Al Qaeda and could portend prison sentences for its supporters. Many of Navalny’s aides and staff have already been arrested, and Navalny himself is facing another two years and six months of his own sentence in a notoriously harsh penal colony northeast of Moscow. Authorities have not made evidence in the case public, claiming that it includes “state secrets”. However, the steadily intensifying crackdown on Navalny and his supporters, triggered in part by a strong show of opposition to Kremlin actions targeting Navalny – both at home and abroad – reads as the product of political weakness and fear. Navalny’s supporters number in the thousands, at least, making the likelihood of the state making good on its threat to jail them all seem dubious at best. Recent constitutional changes put Vladimir Putin on track to remain president until 2036, having been initially elected in 2000 (with a hiatus from 2008-2012 while he was Prime Minister). Decades-long rule by the same strongman has been a feature of many post-Soviet states, as have worsening inequality and political repression, and growing discontent – all of which are visible in Russia now. Furthermore, Putin’s aspirations of a Russian return to great power status, and the associated extraterritorial adventurism (invasion, poisonings, spying, election interference, blowing up weapons depots), have led to growing international backlash, including a steady tightening of sanctions on some of the country’s wealthiest and most influential individuals. Strong man rule is not always toppled by popular opposition, and in any case, the opposition does not appear to be strong or organized enough to unseat the current denizens of the Kremlin. But the popular support Putin enjoys at home is looking increasingly shaky, western powers are hardening their positions against his aggressive actions, and opposition movements like Navalny’s are finding increasing purchase among ordinary Russians.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded that U.S. President Biden reverse a decision to recognize the Ottoman killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in World War I “genocide”. The first U.S. president to do so was Ronald Reagan called it genocide in a 1981 statement on the Holocaust, but this did not constitute a formal recognition. Biden’s decision reflects both his administration’s focus on human rights as a core policy issue and a recalibration of the U.S. relationship with Turkey, which has suffered in recent years for variety of reasons. These include Turkey’s decision to disregard NATO objections and purchase Russian missiles (though Turkey is a NATO member) and the U.S. imposition of sanctions on Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank for violation of sanctions on Iran. Thus far, Erdogan has not followed up on his demands for a reversal with threats of concrete retaliatory action. Rather, Turkey appears to be mindful that the bilateral trade relationship with the U.S. can be a powerful tool to help reverse some of the more severe economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. There is some concern, however, that retaliation against the designation could target Armenia directly, especially considering Turkey’s alleged involvement on behalf of Armenian neighbor Azerbaijan when fighting broke out between the two countries in late 2020 over the status of contested enclave Nagorno-Karabakh. However, this latest move by the Biden administration seems to indicate that it is prepared to be more confrontational with Turkey on select issues. However, this won’t sit well with Erdogan, whose aggressive actions – in any theater – would likely further complicate our relationship with Turkey and hinder Erdogan’s efforts to get Turkey’s economy back on track.

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has agreed to receive humanitarian aid from UN organizations. For months, Maduro has rejected humanitarian aid from several global aid agencies offering to help the Venezuelan people, seeing the offers as an affront to Venezuelan sovereignty and an example of American “imperialism” aimed at destabilizing his government. However, with the economic crisis in Venezuela now much worse as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and U.S. sanctions on the oil sector, Maduro has agreed to allow for the UN World Food Program to provide school lunches for approximately 1.5 million Venezuelan children. The Maduro regime has also brokered an agreement for Venezuela to receive vaccines through the UN program known as COVAX. But the $64 million payment to COVAX was made possible only because opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who the United States and over 50 other countries have recognized as the legitimate interim leader of the country since 2019, requested the release of a portion of Venezuela’s frozen funds for this purpose. Prior to the agreement, Maduro had been seeking vaccines from Russia and China. While it is welcome news, some observers see Maduro as posturing with the UN in an attempt to regain international legitimacy as well as some lost popular support at home, particularly in a time when there are reports of growing lawlessness along the borders and a lack of state presence in the Venezuelan hinterlands.